How would you answer this question: When Jesus Christ personally returns (cf. Acts 1:11), what will happen next?
Some would admit, “I don’t exactly know. I suppose He takes us to heaven, right (?).”
Others might say, “Well, lots of things. Satan and his emissaries are finally defeated. There’s something called The White Throne Judgment. Eventually, heaven.”
Actually, there are clear answers to “what’s next?”. Unfortunately, few of us actually take the time to read, study, and be aware of what’s ahead.
A CHANGE IN THE EFCA STATEMENT OF FAITH
Our fellowship, Christ Community Church (Ames), is affiliated with the Evangelical Free Church of America. We are a “free” church, which means (among many things) that we as a church endorse the EFCA Statement of Faith (SOF), found at https://www.efca.org/resources/document/efca-statement-faith.
At the 2019 summer’s EFCA “ONE” National Conference, delegates voted to change one word in the portion of the SOF dealing with Christ’s Return. At the request of the EFCA Board of Directors, delegates were asked to approve removing the word “pre-millennial,” and replacing it with the word “glorious.” The statement would subsequently read “We believe in the personal, bodily, and glorious return of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
Before the vote to change the statement, it read “…personal, bodily, and pre-millennial return…”. The change to “glorious” was approved by 79% of the voting delegates, sufficient to pass the motion and implement the substitution.
So, what does the substitution of “glorious” for “pre-millennial” mean?
WHAT HAPPENS WHEN CHRIST RETURNS
Before the change, the Evangelical Free Church required that credentialed pastors and ministry personnel, as well as regular believers who joined-as-members of an Evangelical Free Church, believe that when Jesus returns, He will establish a kingdom on the earth for at least 1000 years (i.e., for a millennium).
This appears to be what is taught in Revelation 20:1-6, after Jesus returns in Revelation 19. This also appears to be taught by many Old Testament passages which contain many promises from God for national Israel that have yet to be fulfilled when the Messiah finally sits on David’s throne (cf. 2 Samuel 7:16, Psalm 2). Therefore, for many decades, we EFCA-ers said that the Scripture clearly taught that Jesus’ personal return will happen before the millennium, that His would be a “pre-millennial” return to the earth.
With the substitution of “glorious” for “pre-millennial,” EFCA pastors, ministry personnel, and members need no longer insist that Jesus’ return will precede the millennial kingdom. Thus those who believe something different about the timing of Jesus’ return now can be admitted to credentialed ministry and as members in churches.
So, what else is believed among genuine Christians about the timing of Jesus’ return?
Some within the broader Body of Christ (worldwide) do not believe Jesus will come back to establish a kingdom on earth. They insist that passages like Revelation 20, and other New Testament passages, can be understood to be happening now, in the present age (for example, that in some sense even today Satan is bound, falling in the bottomless pit, and not able to deceive the nations any longer; cf. Rev. 20:2-3).
And, they would suggest, the Old Testament promises to Israel should not be understood as needing to be fulfilled in a literal kingdom. There is no promised future for national Israel, except that such promises are being fulfilled “spiritually” as Jesus reigns “over the kingdom of the church” today. Such a position about the timing of Jesus' return may associated with the term “amillennial” (“a” = “not, or no”), meaning we should not expect any future “millennial” kingdom on the earth after Jesus returns.
With the change in our EFCA doctrinal statement, those who ascribe to this other (a-millennial) interpretation of Old Testament and New Testament passages are now welcomed into the leadership and membership of the Evangelical Free Church of America.
WHY DID THE EFCA BOARD ENCOURAGE THIS CHANGE?
In recent years, those serving in EFCA national leadership and on the EFCA Board of Directors came to the conviction that while one’s view of the timing of Jesus' return (and if or when the millennial kingdom would or would not happen) is important, it is not essential “to the gospel.” That is, whether you are “pre-millennial” or “amillennial,” you can still believe that Christ Jesus died for your sins and rose again, and trust Him for salvation.
The national leadership’s (stated) goal was to have an SOF that only included those truths which they considered the Bible to teach as necessary for the faith of one who is genuinely saved. Only the “central truths of the gospel” should populate our SOF. If other non-essential items were retained and required in the SOF, we end up (it was argued) dividing from and excluding genuine believers over what ought to be considered a secondary, non-essential doctrine.
Thus (the Board contended), changing out the descriptor “pre-millennial” return for “glorious" return was a necessary step allowing all EFCA believers to unify around gospel essentials, to major only on the majors.
INDIVIDUAL EFCA CHURCHES MUST DECIDE
In the coming months, the 1400+ Evangelical Free Churches around the country will need to decide whether or not they will individually adjust their doctrinal statements accordingly. Not surprisingly, the national leadership is allowing individual EFCs to retain the word “pre-millennial” in their own SOFs, or to change it out.
Consequently, Christ Community Church (Ames), having been made aware of the national change, will be considering its decision to align (or not) with the vote of the national delegates.
A PERSONAL WORD
In the larger explanation for the impact and effect of this change, the Board of Directors stated to the conferees that “this amendment (i.e., the change to ‘glorious’) will not diminish our adherence to biblical inerrancy nor change our framework for interpreting the Bible…the whole of the canonical Scriptures ultimately point us to Jesus as Israel’s promised Messiah.”
Without meaning any disrespect, I personally find this assertion wanting. In my view, the truth is that the EFCA has just opened the door to a broader section of the body of Christ which has a very different framework for interpreting the Bible.
Briefly put, the remaining-yet-unfulfilled-promises to Israel found throughout the Old Testament and New Testament are (with an “amillennial” approach) interpreted with a very different framework. Even as all of the promises regarding the Messiah’s first arrival were fulfilled literally, a “pre-millennial” framework retained such an interpretational approach when dealing with passages which speak of the Messiah’s second arrival.
Now (with an amillennial framework of interpretation) all of these yet-to-be-fulfilled promise are somehow being fulfilled spiritually in the present age and experience of the Church (which is thought to be synonymous with the Messiah's promised world-wide kingdom). How can this interpretational framework be said to be the same as that which we had previously?
My personal view is that with this vote, the EFCA has decided that a very different interpretational approach to the Scriptures is now acceptable for its credentialed pastors, ministry leaders, and at-large members within EFCA churches. And, I am profoundly disappointed in this. It was, and is, my conviction that we were a movement that contended for pre-millennialism because it was an approach to interpreting the Scriptures which the Scriptures themselves called for.
CHRIST COMMUNITY CHURCH IS AN EFCA CHURCH
To be sure, this change will remove a dis-unifying barrier over a phrase that largely has either been ignored or misunderstood. “Pre-millennial” requires much more explaining than “glorious.” Practically speaking the change will allow new members joining CCC not to have to wrestle much with their understanding of the Lord’s return.
Our Missional Leadership Board will think through our need to present a motion to align with the change in the new SOF of the EFCA. May God give us grace with one another, and a great love for understanding all we can about the greatness of the Lord’s promises and the glory of His soon return.